9.

The road south east from Sparta cuts through flat, open farmland. The clouds hung low and heavy over the fields, where small tobacco and corn plants were beginning to grow, timidly. The hills behind were covered in white puffs of flowering pear and wild dogwoods. Arthur was humming to himself, and drumming his fingers on the steering wheel.

I closed my eyes, remembering the drive as it had been in the autumn of my sixteenth year. That day, the sky was a bright, clear blue, and the hills were gold and orange and red. Grandmother lectured as she drove. “I might have known,” she said, “I might have know, you being your mother’s daughter. I should have barred the windows. I shouldn’t have let you out of the house. Just school and church and home. Oh but Jesus, didn’t I try to do right by you?”

I was quiet. I was seven months along, and in my belly I could feel the stretch and swift kicks of our baby. I knew he was a boy. I could feel it deep inside me, and  in a dream, saw him born and wild and cartwheeling around the yard. We stopped for gas in Chattanooga, and as the clerk pumped gas, Grandmother turned to me and laid a hand on my knee.

“Caroline. If you’d only tell me who the father is, we could make this right. We could do this differently. I’d sew you a wedding dress, my girl.”

How close I came in that moment, and how often I’d relived what might have been! I had loved Arthur deeply, maybe even wanted to marry him, but I was so young that it felt as if whole worlds would have shattered. Tears filled my grandmother’s eyes, but I was silent. “Alright, then.” She said, thin lipped.

When we arrived at the home in Marietta, she wouldn’t even walk me inside. She pulled up to the edge of the gate, helped unload my suitcases, and drove away. She never even turned off her car.

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8.

Once, when I was quite small, my mother took me on a walk in a valley.

I remember walking beside her in a broad, shallow stream, the hems of her dress floating on top of water as smooth and shimmering as ice, schools of minnows parting around us as we went. The rocks of the creek bed were smooth and flat, covered in algae and water snails. My mother held my hand to keep me from slipping, and as we walked she told me the story of a doe who was separated from her fawn, who wandered deep and far into the world to find her. The doe crossed streams and mountains and meadows calling her daughter’s name but still she couldn’t find her. At last she came to a land of snow, as vast and endless as the sky. The doe called for her child one last time and the fawn appeared, as pale and brilliant as a star, with a fur coat of white and eyes that shone like silver. And then the doe was happy at last, and the two lived together in the cold place.

“It means, where you go I go,” she said. She squeezed my hand.

My mother left the stream when we reached a small island. It was covered in knee high grass, yellow-green and almost translucent in the sun. In my memory, it was as if with every step of her bare foot on the earth a blue bell sprang from the ground in full bloom. Then she unpacked a small picnic lunch of ham sandwiches and pickles and we shared it together on paper plates.

That is the truth of flowers : even some jaunty dandelion growing in a ditch is a miracle. It is the stuff of magic, a sweet growing thing made from light and dirt and seed. Inside each green body lives an unspoken law, as old as time: reach deep into the earth, send your roots into the rich darkness of the soil, and then, when you are ready, oh glory, break up into the air and see the sky.  

Turn the page.

A Poem

In my sleep, I heard my child.

He called for me and when I entered his room he was sitting up in bed,

Crying to the window, as if abandoned.

I held him in my arms, carried him to my bed,

And nursed him in the stillness of the morning.

I felt whole and holy, holding him.

 

I thought of the children taken from their parents at the border.

I imagine their mothers. When he nurses my son raises

His small hand to my mouth. What does your son do?

What will you miss tonight, when you are alone and know

Somewhere your child is crying for his mother?

 

I teach my babies:

The world is good.

It is infinite. Its possibilities are boundless.

Each and every moment there are miracles, somewhere,

Unfurling as blossoms in the sun.

I teach my babies:

Humanity is good.

We are wise. Our ingenuity is boundless.

There is no problem too great to solve.

 

What do you tell your children?

Is there only so much freedom to go around?

Is there only so much hope?

 

And so I mourn the cracked distance between my sons’ happy lives and those broken at the border. It is a line etched in desert sand and it signifies nothing to me except the outcome of some battle fought long ago. If I could open my door to them, I would, and my windows too. I would open the pantry, lay out blankets, and we would picnic on forgotten jars of artichoke hearts and lima beans,

And we would say together to our children:

Yes, this is possible,

And yes, you are worthy,

And yes, you are sun and moon to me,

And yes, this is love.

 

7.

The storm that had threatened all night broke the next morning. I laid in bed, listening to the sound of the rain on the window, the thunder shaking the pains of glass. I heard the kettle whistle in the kitchen. I headed down for breakfast.

“Coffee, Carolove?” my grandmother asked when I entered the kitchen.

“Yes, thank you.”

She still wore her robe and slippers. “I couldn’t sleep last night, thinking bout those flowers,” she said as she poured.

“Oh?”

“Mrs. Jesnsen swore her boys were visiting their grandparents in Altamont this weekend. I’ve never seen a whole yard of flowers wilt thata way.”

She had fixed biscuits with strawberry jam. We sat at the table where she read the paper in the mornings, reading aloud any parts she thought would interest me.

“Oh, Caroline!” she exclaimed. “Look here! They’re doing Midsummer at the playhouse this weekend. Won’t that be fine?”

I took a deep breath. “I’m sure it will be, but I won’t be able to go.” She eyed me curiously over the top of her paper. I spoke slowly. “You see, I’m leaving today on a trip for a while. I’m not sure exactly how long it will take.” She was stunned silent. “I’m sorry to give you such little warning. I only decided yesterday I would go.”

“Well where are you going?”

“I’m going to find him.”

“Who?”

“Him.”

She shook out the paper and folded it with a coolness I’d seen her adopt before, though not often, always in moments of conflict. She rose slowly and walked to the window.

“May I remind you of our agreement, Caroline?” she asked, her back to me.

“I remember it.”

“I said that you could live on with me, that I’d continue to support you, to raise you, so long as you swore that, under no circumstances, would you see that child again. You swore.”

“I’m not a girl anymore, Grandmother. I don’t need you to support me or raise me.” I stood. “I’m grown. I have to do what I think right. I have to live by my own ideals.”

“Hmph,” she sneered. “Ideals, indeed. You and your mother didn’t have half an ideal between the two of you, obviously.” Her tone grew biting. “May I remind you how you begged? How you cried? You sat right there in that chair and sobbed. I could have thrown you out. Many would have done. But I let your dresses out for you so your classmates wouldn’t know, so the whole town wouldn’t know. I-I lied for you!” Her voice faltered as she said this. “I lied, against my own scruples. I paid for your stay at that-that facility” she could barely say the word, “in Marietta. And all for this?” She slammed her hand down hard on the table. “I won’t allow it, Caroline. I will not let you leave me!” She collapsed in her chair, sobbing.

It was as pathetic a tantrum as I’d ever seen a grown person perform and I did not take it lightly. It almost worked its purpose. I knelt beside her chair and put my head in her lap, as if I was a dog. She stroked my hair lovingly, smoothing it neatly. “Haven’t I loved you as if you were my own child?”

“I love you, too, Grandmother,” I said softly, “With all my heart.” I rose and kissed her on the cheek.

“I’ll die if you go,” she said when I reached the door. I had heard such threats from her before. She had said this when I’d proposed taking the GED and starting school at the Ladies’ College in Murfreesboro, when I’d tried to take a position as a secretary in Nashville, and when I’d suggested that I could board with a former schoolmate in Chattanooga and work as a waitress. In years’ past, it had been enough to stop me.  

This time, I managed a smile. “You had better not,” I said. I grabbed my bag from where I’d left it by the door and pulled an umbrella from the hall tree. I shut the door behind me.

I walked to the depot in the rain, my shoes and stockings soaked by the time I arrived.

Arthur was waiting outside the depot in his grey Ford. He didn’t get out of the car. I knocked on the passenger window and he popped the trunk. I threw my bag in and slid onto the front seat, shaking the umbrella out and running a hand over my damp hair. “What’d you tell your grandmother?” he asked.

“The truth.”

“How’d that go for you?”

“About as you’d imagine. She says this’ll kill her.”

“It won’t.” Arthur turned his blinker on, made the three lefts around the town square, and we headed out of town.

Turn the page.

5.

Somewhere, my boy was seven years old.  

Mr. Timmons, the owner of the florist shop on the square, came by at dawn with his sheers at the ready. I heard him slam the door of his grey Studebaker and watched as he considered the yard. Milkwhite daffodils bobbed their heads as he walked through the garden. He knelt down, cupped a blossom in his hand, and released it after a pause. Standing, he looked about him. Then he left, without clipping one.

 I slipped down the stairs, my bare feet silent on the cold floor. Grandmother was already in the kitchen, brewing water for coffee. “Caroline?” She called softly. “Is that you?”

I was silent on the landing. After a moment I heard her rustle her way to the back room where she did the washing.

I unlatched the four locks, saving for last the deadbolt, slipping the key out from a string I hid around my neck, tucked in my nightgown. When I reached the porch, I closed the door behind me without a sound.

The flowers had begun to droop. They were yellowing some too, and the petals, when held between my fingertips, showed the start of wrinkles. The vines that wrapped around the house were browning, and as I watched, the petal of a pearly rose loosed itself from its bud and fell in sweet pendulum swings to the ground. I knelt and brushed a faded iris against my cheek.  

The flowers were dying, even while spring was in full blossom all around them.

“Caroline!” Grandmother called from the front door. “What are you doing outside in your nightgown? Get inside, girl.”

I collected myself with a few deep breaths. “Of course, Grandmother.”  

She put her arm around my waist as we walked back inside. “Why on Earth are you out here in your nightgown? We’ll be late for church if you don’t dress quickly. ”

Up in my room, my hands shook as I buttoned my dress and fastened my belt. There had been winters when he was younger, when I had worried about what I would do if the flowers never bloomed again. Those were dark Februaries and Marches, and each morning I would hurry to the window to see if any green pushed up in the yard. How faithfully the flowers had come till now! They had never drooped or wilted before. Not even in times of draught. I fumbled with the clasp on my shoe and willed myself not to cry.

“Caroline?” my grandmother called from the foot of the stairs.

“I’m coming!” I called back. I met my grandmother at the front door. She was wearing a dark blue dress with a faint green paisley print on the skirt. Her thinning hair, which was speckled grey and white, was smoothed into a neat bun at the nape of her neck. She wore thick tan stockings and flat black kedettes. Her glasses hung around her bosom from a gold chain, and her pocketbook bulged with her Bible.

“Your hair is a mess, Caroline.”

I looked quickly at the mirror in the hall tree, trying to smooth some of the fallen strands. She smiled softly, took my head between her hands and carefully unpinned my braids, holding the bobby pins between her teeth as she gently rebraided my hair. Her fingers worked quickly.

“There now,” she said as she released me. She looked at our joint reflections in the glass. “Pretty as a picture.”

Out in the yard, the flowers still drooped. Grandmother did not notice. “Let’s hurry or we’ll be late, Caroline.”  She reached out her hand to me, then linked her arm with mine. I must have seemed upset, for my grandmother said quickly, “I love you, my girl,” as we walked along.

“I love you, too, Grandmother.”

When we arrived at the baptist church, most of the congregants were still milling about on the sidewalk. Grandmother nodded as she swept past the usher, taking a program with enthusiasm. As ever, we sat in one of the front pews where almost the entirety of our view would be the preacher and the pulpit. My grandmother took out her Bible from her pocket book, found the opening passage, and marked her place with the ribbon. Then she folded her hands neatly in her lap. The organist began, “A Closer Walk With Thee,” the choir singing from behind us on the balcony. The rest of the congregation filtered in, and Pastor Denton entered from a door off of the stage. He wore purple robes with sleeves so long and full his hands looked diminutive peeking out from the cuffs.

“Good morning, brothers and sisters!” He motioned for us to take our seats. “How wonderful to see your shining faces this fine May Day. This afternoon  of course is our Spring Picnic; please join us in the side yard for games and entertainment and fellowship. One of my favorite days of the year. Today is a special day for Laura and me as well, as our youngest son Arthur has just returned from Nashville.” My stomach lurched. He was sitting in the front row with his mother. “As most of you know, he’s been there the last five years, getting his optometrist license and doing his practicum. We are so proud of him and excited as we can be to have him here with us before he moves to Knoxville this fall. I know you’ll help us in welcoming him home.”

Arthur gave a reluctant wave to the congregation behind him. He had not changed in the years away. He was leaner, perhaps, but he still looked more boy than man. Our eyes met for a moment. He smiled broadly at me. I looked away. The choir began a new hymn.

I thought of the boy. I closed my eyes and tried to resurrect the feel of him. As a baby, he smelled to me of earth and cedar trees and the way a window pane smells in a summer storm. I imagined the flowers. I pictured them more numerous than ever, spilling out into the road, bursting through the shingles of my gable. It was almost a prayer.

My grandmother nudged me hard. “Open your eyes, Caroline!”

Out on the lawn after the service the Pastor, his wife, and Arthur stood in a receiving line by the food table. Grandmother marched along. I ducked away, but I could hear the loud timbre of my grandmother’s voice and could see her and the preacher’s family through the leaves of the azalea bushes.  

“Can this truly be young Artie?” She placed one of her bony hands on his shoulder. “You’re looking awfully grown up, my boy.”

“Isn’t he? We hadn’t seen him since Christmas last. I almost didn’t recognize him!” his mother said.

Grandmother laughed good naturedly. “I know it’s a joy to you to have him home. I don’t know what I’d do if Caroline ever left for so long, though you must be so proud.”

“Where is Caroline?” Arthur asked.

Grandmother looked around, confused. “Why, she was just beside me a moment ago!”

“I’ll have to catch up with her later,” Arthur said.

I joined Grandmother at a table under the shade of a tall oak tree, along with the members of her Sunday school class. They had all been friends now for fifty years. I had grown up around them, and as much as I enjoyed many of their stories from when they were younger, I hated when their conversation inevitably turned to who had died, or what prognosis they’d received most recently. When my grandmother started up her story of her back going out three weeks prior, I excused myself.

In the field, a group of children had gathered around a pole to play a may game. The girls were weaving in and out of stationary boys, striping the pole yellow and green. When they’d wound all the way down, they began to dance the other direction. They were laughing.

“I remember when that was us,” Arthur said behind me.

I managed a smile. “It doesn’t feel that long ago.”

“Is that any way to greet an old friend?” he said, softly. I presented my cheek to him, which he kissed softly. “How are you, Cari?” He was taller. “Mother says you’re still living with your grandmother.”

“Well, yes, I-”

“Not working?”

“Grandmother needs me too much. Or so she says.”

“Ah.” He was unconvinced.

“But it seems you’re doing very well. Arrived from Nashville and off to Knoxville. Home must seem very small to you.”

“It’s easier if I stay away.”

“I do envy you that.”

Grandmother was calling. She’d already gathered her things and stood waiting for me on the sidewalk. “I’m tired, Caroline!” she yelled.

“Meet me, would you?” he said. He took my hand. “At the old place. The old time.”

“If I can,” I replied. I pressed his hand and left, ducking beneath the branches of a cherry tree. It was pale pink. There were bees on every limb, making their way from blossom to blossom.

When we reached my grandmother’s house, the flowers looked as though blown about by a great wind. The daffodils were face down in the dirt, and the vining roses on the house had collapsed, a great brown stalk dangling limply from the porch awning.

“Well, my goodness,” my grandmother said. We stopped on the front walk together, our mouths agape. “What mischief is this!” She began her march indoors. “I just know it’s those Jensen boys. I saw them over here yesterday with the devil in their eyes, scheming away. Sure as day they’ve come along and killed our flowers.” The door slammed behind her. I walked to my mother’s garden and sat on the bench, sure for the moment that the boy had died.

But then as I cried, a small sliver of a green blossom pressed its way through the earth before my feet. I knelt, and a single tear fell on it. The petals unfurled, pale white and as thin as tissue paper. And so I knew my boy lived, somewhere, he was still alive.

Turn the page.

Progress!

I’ve just released chapter 4 of my serial novel, The Child in the GardenIt is a magical realism mystery set in the American South in the late 1950s. This process has already been so wonderful, motivating me to write often, edit more thoroughly, and keep tension and pace more in my mind as I write.

To start at the beginning, start here. To read the latest chapter, continue reading below.

4.

“Now this is how you grow a garden, Caroline.”

Grandmother wore her pink linen dress and her thick white canvas apron. She had left off her usual stockings and pearls. She put her hands on her hips. “Just leave it there Mr. Hawkins!” she yelled, pointing to the corner of the garden. We watched as the neighbor backed his truck into the yard, the mulch piled as high as a mountain. After parking he climbed up into the bed and began shoveling it off. My grandmother hoisted me up into the truck bed and then stepped up herself. I used the little shovel she’d bought me the week prior at the general store. “I’ve never been afraid of hard work!” she said. She wiped some sweat from her forehead and smiled.

It took us a week to mulch the beds, my grandmother pulling weeds as we went. She used an old kitchen knife, donning gardening gloves covered in a purple iris print. She stabbed the blade into the earth and twisted it round hard. Kneeling next to her I could hear the snap of roots before she tore the dandelions and henbit and crabgrass from the soil. Then she would use her cupped palms to pat the mulch around sprigs of onion or the beginnings of the lettuce and spinach and chard just beginning to sprout from the earth.

“It just gets easier every year, Caroline, love. Thirty years we’ve grown this garden. Your mother used to do this work, just like you.” I followed her around the yard and worked alongside her as she harvested tomatoes or examined the peaches and plums in the orchard. She was always chatting away, teaching me things — where to look for caterpillars or how to keep beetles off leaves. It was hard work, half of which she hired out to neighborhood boys in subsequent years. Looking back, though, I think this was Grandmother’s way of keeping me close that first summer, of knitting me to her when my grief was still so new.

In the afternoons we were too tired for much. We would bring a blanket out under the maple tree in the side yard, and read our books and drink lemonade, and in the evenings Grandmother would let me stay out late enough to catch fireflies in jars. She made me dozens of new dresses for school, and knew ten ways at least to braid my hair, which she took great care to do every morning.

For all this, of course, I missed my mother.  I dreamed of her often, and in these dreams she was usually sitting on my bed, just as she did when she was alive, reading a book or mending clothes. Seeing her there, I would give a little sob and crawl into her lap, and tell her, “Oh, Mama, I thought you were dead,” and she would stroke my hair and say with half a smile, “My poor little Caroline, right here I am!” And when I woke up I would already be crying, and my grandmother would lay down with me until I fell back asleep.

One morning after just such a dream, Grandmother showed me a little patch of land in the corner of the front yard I’d never taken much notice of before. It was bordered in small rocks but the grass grew up among them and the only thing of note was a little trellis bench in the corner that had once been painted white but that was now faded back to wood. “This was your mother’s garden when she was a girl,” she said. “I’ve neglected it ever since she’s been gone, but if you’d like to take it over, I’ve a little rose bush for you to tend.” We planted it, kneeling together on the ground to tuck the mulch in around it. Then Grandmother said, as she stood, “You know, it seems to me there’s still something of your Mama’s spirit here, Caroline love. Like I can almost feel her. Can you feel her?”

I closed my eyes. I tried to picture her standing in the garden, smiling at me. She would have freckles on her cheeks, it being summer. Her hair would be curly in the humidity and heat. “I can feel her,” I whispered, and Grandmother squeezed my shoulder, gentle-like.

From then on whenever I was sad, I went to my mother’s garden and sat on the bench and imagined I was talking to her. Eventually, this became something of a prayer, and I would go to the rose bush to cry and speak any little sorrow I had. As the years passed, the rose bush grew and grew, and Grandmother paid a neighbor boy to build an arbor for it to trail up, and I would sit there underneath the shade of the roses.

When I was seventeen and it was one year since my son’s birth, I sat in my mother’s garden and cried harder than I had ever done before. I prayed to melt into the earth and dissolve I felt so sad. It was just turning from autumn to winter, and the rose bush was bare, but in an instant, as sweet as a kiss a little rose bud grew and unfurled where one of my tears had fallen, and then another sprang, and another, and soon the little garden was covered in blossoms and I knew deeper than any other knowing that the blooms were a sign sent for me.

Since then, the flowers had come steady each spring, growing more and more plentifully, and I understood them as proof of his joy. The blooms lasted later than all the other spring flowers, holding out even until the last whispers of summer faded into autumn. I would watch them and be peaceful, certain that he was alive and well, certain as they faded each winter that they would return.

But on a crisp, cool morning in the spring of my 23rd year, the boy’s flowers began to wilt.